Almost a year ago, I read a post on Get Rich Slowly by April Dykman entitled How to eat on $4/day. Her article told the story of Leanne Brown, a student who, in preparing the thesis for her Masters in Food Studies, focused upon the plight of food stamp recipients in the U.S. Was it possible for them to eat good food on $4 per day? In her efforts to answer that question, Brown created a cookbook: Good and Cheap.
Eager to reduce my family’s grocery budget as part of our debt-reduction efforts, and inspired by Brown’s initiative, I purchased a copy of the book. A few months later, psyched by the delicious dishes we were enjoying – and even more so by the significant drop in our grocery bills – I included a permanent link to Brown’s book on my Prudence Debtfree site under the heading “Featured Money Saver”. I approached Brown about the possibility of an interview, and she accepted, saying the best time would be upon the launch of her book’s second edition. The new and improved version of Good and Cheap is now available, and Leanne Brown, extremely busy at this time, graciously spoke with me about it.
Leanne Brown first realized her fascination with food policy when she started to work as an assistant to a city councillor in Edmonton, Alberta. Among all of the issues involved in the daily workings of municipal government, she found herself drawn to those that centred upon food. “I had an abiding love of cooking,” Brown explains, “but there was more to it than that.” There was the cultural importance of food and the impact of people’s food choices upon their health. As she discovered the web of complexity surrounding food and access to it, Brown decided to take her interest further, and she was accepted by the University of New York to pursue her Masters Degree in Food Studies.
“I wanted to unleash the power of food and to invite more people to the table.”
Entering her studies at NYU with an open mind, she soon became intrigued by the American system of food stamps – a system about which she knew little as a Canadian. Brown learned that 15% of Americans relied upon food stamps – 46 million citizens. “Such a huge number of people,” Brown recognized, ” but not much of a voice. I wanted to unleash the power of food and to invite more people to the table.”
She found the focus of her Masters thesis: She would share how accessible good food actually is. Brown put an adaptation of her thesis online and was surprised at the feedback she received. Suggestions and encouragement came her way. Lots of it. People were excited! Along with an editor, she further modified her work, and it became the first edition of her cookbook – Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day.
Q. Did you get any feedback from people who were struggling financially and who were helped by following the recipes in Good and Cheap?
A. Yes! I received feedback from people on food stamps, people who had just lost their jobs, and people living on limited budgets. One person was Brenda, a grandmother in Texas caring for two grandchildren on a modest retirement income. She contacted me after she got a copy of the book and told me that she was enjoying it. Brenda had tried to make her budget stretch and to eat as much as possible from her vegetable garden, but she consistently found that towards the end of the month, she’d have to go to the food bank, where the food was often less than healthy. She was frustrated financially and discouraged by weight gain and bad health, suffering as she was from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar.
A few months ago, Brenda contacted me again to tell me that she had lost 30 pounds; she is off all meds for blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar; and she never has to go to the food bank anymore. It was all about Brenda’s determination. I was honoured to provide one piece of the puzzle for her.
Brown is disturbed by the shame typically felt by people on food stamps. “In many cases, it’s a temporary situation,” she explains. “Recent immigrants often need food stamps as they adjust and get settled. People who have lost their jobs sometimes need the help of food stamps until they find new employment. It shouldn’t be a shameful secret! It should be a badge of honour. ‘I got through this!’ People should feel free to talk about it more openly.”
Shameful secret. I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between the psychology of food stamps and the psychology of debt.
Q. Many debtors feel a shame about their debt. The middle-class is full of people who keep their financial distress a secret. How do you feel about the idea of Good and Cheap being used to help them turn their finances around?
A. I love it! I want every single person who can benefit from the book to do so. And to each one of those people, I want to say:
- Be patient with yourself. Ultimately, it’s about changing your relationship with food, and that takes time.
- Embrace the potential to eat well on far less than you might think is possible.
- Give yourself the freedom to think things through. There’s a science to cooking. You will learn different concepts the more you practice.
- Unleash the magic of cooking! When we think of “magic”, we think of potions concocted in a big pot over a fire. Cooking is the closest thing we have to that.
Q. When I bought my copy of Good and Cheap for $20 USD, I had the option of paying an additional $5 to purchase a copy that would be donated to a needy family. As someone trying to be very careful with money, I was happy to be able to give in such a significant way for so little. Is this an option with the 2nd edition of the book too?
A. The second edition costs $16.95, and now it’s automatic. For every book purchased, a second copy is donated to a needy family at no additional cost. With support from Access Wireless and non profit organizations that deal with low income families, donated copies of Good and Cheap are distributed.
Q. What about people who aren’t set up to follow your recipes because they don’t have the kitchen supplies? Is there a way to get needed cooking utensils to them?
A. We’re hoping to develop partnerships with different companies and non profits to provide starter kits of utensils and also spices. People on low incomes are understandably reluctant to make the upfront expenditures that are often necessary for them to be able to prepare recipes in the book – even though in the long term, there is a significant savings. There is an abundant quantity of kitchen supplies. The goal is to redirect resources to where they’re needed.
Q. When you first arrived in New York City to pursue your studies, did you have any idea of what would be the result?
A. No! 40,000 copies of Good and Cheap sold out, and there are thousands of pre-orders for the 2nd edition. A few days ago, I did a “radio tour” about the 2nd edition. I was in a studio room with a phone from 7:00 am until 2:00 pm, and I talked with one radio show host after another – all across the U.S.
The 2nd edition of Good and Cheap includes more recipes as well as more information about food. “I didn’t think people would be so interested in the educational aspects of the book, but they are!” Brown says. “I’m glad to be in a position to teach.” There is also a new focus upon food as it relates to the change of seasons as well as specific strategies to eat well.
Maybe you’re trying to make ends meet on a low income, or you’re doing what you can to get out of debt. Maybe you’re a “badass” going for early financial freedom, and you want to cut your expenses in order to save more. Food is a common denominator for all of us. We need it, and our health depends upon wise choices. As it turns out, both wisdom and frugality are served by home cooking real food. In her efforts to reach those without a voice, Leanne Brown has reached us all with her invitation to the table – where the food is both Good and Cheap.
Do you use food stamps? Do you know someone who does? How do you manage your food-related expenses? Your comments are welcome.